Alleviate vs. Relieve: When a Synonym Isn’t

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I recently came across the inappropriate use of alleviate in a mystery novel:

the arrest of George Shulan alleviated me from any further duty towards Mrs. Trevelyan; I was free to leave… –Lack of Temperance, Anna Loan-Wilsey, Kensington Books (2012), p. 138.

The writer’s meaning is that the speaker has been freed from an obligation. She has been relieved of a duty. I’m willing to bet that the author wrote either relieved or freed in the first draft and that alleviated slipped in during revision.

I say this because both relief and free occur in the same paragraph from which the example is taken. The writer was doing what we all do in revision: seeking to avoid repetition of the same or similar words in close proximity.

Pretend that you are the writer. In rereading the paragraph, you notice the following:

Any relief I might’ve felt was negated by the unresolved mystery…
the arrest of George Shulan relieved me from any further duty
why did I feel regret instead of relief?

Uh-oh! Two reliefs and a relieved in the same paragraph. You would reach for the dictionary to find a synonym for “relieve” and discover “alleviate.” You are working to meet a deadline, so you keep going without further thought. Understandable, but deadly to your credibility as a professional writer.

Synonym lists are great tools, but they can be the source of error to the unwary.

Although alleviate can be used as a synonym for relieve in some contexts, the two are not invariably interchangeable.

Like alleviate, relieve can mean “to ease or mitigate (pain, distress, or difficulty); to make (a condition) less burdensome.”

Relieve can also mean ‘to free or clear (a person) of or from an obligation.”

Alleviate, on the other hand, is pretty much limited to one meaning, “to make (pain, suffering, etc.) less severe.”

With little change in meaning, one can say either, This medicine alleviates arthritis pain, or, This medicine relieves arthritis pain.

Restating Lincoln freed the slaves as, Lincoln alleviated the slaves, however, is not an option.

Tip: Before using a synonym from a list, look the synonym up in a dictionary to verify that it means the same thing as the word you are replacing.

A Google search reveals that a great many bloggers and commenters are confused about the meaning of alleviate. It’s used incorrectly in each of the following examples:

• Man with spinal cord disorder alleviated with Homeopathy
• An alleged victim…completely alleviated me of absolutely any guilt at his deposition
• This solution alleviated me of the strict rules of the dorms…
• Your team… alleviated me having to research my paperwork.
• It’s alleviated me having to put pen to paper

Alleviate is a transitive verb whose object will be a condition or a problem–not a human being. A disorder may be alleviated, but not a man. A victim may “absolve” a person of guilt, but not “alleviate” him of it.

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10 thoughts on “Alleviate vs. Relieve: When a Synonym Isn’t”

    I forgot to say that I found a lot to admire and enjoy in the novel from which my example is drawn. Cozy mystery fans who like their stories set in the 19th century will want to check out LACK OF TEMPERANCE. The mystery unravels in the midst of a Women’s Temperance conference.

  2. Maeve, thank you for this! I just love good clarification of these common problems. I, for one, always look up the actual definitions of many synonyms for this very purpose. Sometimes the differences in meaning are subtle and we need to clarify.

    This especially helped clarify usage:
    “Alleviate is a transitive verb whose object will be a condition or a problem–not a human being. A disorder may be alleviated, but not a man. A victim may “absolve” a person of guilt, but not “alleviate” him of it.”

  3. Has some mysterious vocation – vectored alien virus struck all copy editors stone dead?
    The butchering of the language in web, print and broadcast media has become a global crisis. Call the CDC at once!

  4. Donna Marie,
    You’re right. The subtle meanings make the difference.

    It’s not a virus, it’s the economy. A lot of publishing houses have fired their copy editors to plump the bottom line. I’ve read books from Penguin and equally venerable houses that contain unbelievably basic errors. Writers these days have to be their own copy editors–not a good situation, since it’s impossible for the most careful writer to catch all the howlers in a long work.

  5. “Man with spinal cord disorder alleviated with Homeopathy.”

    This is a good example of the misuse of the word “alleviate”.
    Furthermore, “homeopathy” is a common noun and not a proper noun.

    Even worse, homeopathy is a pseudoscientific plague that was brought upon us by charlatans, and homeopathy should not be mentioned in polite company. Homeopathy falls into the same category of pseudosciencs as acupuncture, “theraputic touch”, and seeing in the dark.

  6. Citing your second example above, “Any relief I might’ve felt was negated by the unresolved mystery…”

    I understand how the word “alleviate” will not work in this context. Suppose, however, the writer had used “alleviation” instead. Would that be an acceptable alternative, or do we still come right back to the same problem?

  7. Paul – “do we still come right back to the same problem?”
    Not exactly the same, but still a problem. “Any alleviation I might’ve felt” changes a clean, easy-to-understand statement to a puzzle. The word “relief” stands alone, but “alleviation” leaves the reader wondering “alleviation of what?” “Alleviation” requires modifiers. “alleviation of my responsibility to my late employer.” No writer wants to replace a single effective word with eight words that may still leave the reader puzzled.

  8. Maeve, thank you very much on your examples of “alleviation.” It clears up a lot of things for me. Thank you. I now feel relieved!

  9. Interesting stuff. In the UK we have a big problem with members of the media thinking that ‘refute’ means the same as ‘deny’, when a politician or other person is faced with an allegation.

  10. Interesting. I have always associated the word “alleviate” with suffering and health problems and never misused it, but I can see what the author of the novel was thinking. It’s hard to replace words correctly just for the sake of not being repetitive.

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